[imagesource: ER Lombard / Gallo]
In the early hours of Monday morning, more than 200 healthcare professionals from Cuba touched down on South African soil.
Arriving at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria to great fanfare, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says they came at the government’s request.
Mkhize added that they would be deployed across the country based on the spread of the pandemic – you can see that breakdown here.
Some footage of the arrival, complete with flag-waving and a speech from Naledi Pandor, our Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, via News24:
Given that a surge in coronavirus-related cases is very likely to follow the easing of the lockdown restrictions on Friday, bringing in all the help we can get seems fair enough.
As TimesLIVE notes, though, it’s pretty expensive help:
The group consists of experts in epidemiology, biostatistics, and public health, family physicians, health care technology engineers and experts to provide technical assistance…
…projected costs for a medical brigade of 187 Cuban personnel was R440m. An even bigger contingent arrived in SA on Sunday, consisting of 217 personnel, the publication reported.
The documents showed that the average cost of the Cuban medical brigade was projected at R2.35m a person.
Mkhize has stressed multiple times that the Cuban arrivals have “come to assist us and they will be working alongside South Africans”, and that they are not a threat to local employment.
The South African Medical Association (Sama) isn’t so sure, and they have criticised the government’s actions. IOL below:
Sama chairperson Dr Angelique Coetzee said South Africa has many public and private health specialists, family physicians and epidemiologists who would have heeded the president’s call for assistance during this very challenging period.
“Retired doctors can be brought back into the service delivery system – even for a short time. They can also mentor younger doctors who lack the necessary experience and skills.
“Only when we have exhausted all our internal human resources should a consultative process between Sama, the Department of Health and the Presidency been initiated to bring the Cuban specialists to South Africa,” Coetzee said…
“While we are not averse to the so-called Cuban Brigade assisting us, we feel strongly that the principle of not engaging with Sama – as the biggest representative body of doctors in the country – is flawed and wrong,” Coetzee said.
Coetzee pointed out that there are many unemployed doctors in the country, and said the decision to look abroad at this time was a “little bit premature”.
It’s also worth noting that Sama says a local public sector registrar or mid-level medical officer, which is roughly comparable to a Cuban family physician, earns around R1,2 million per year.
Yet the average cost of the Cuban medical brigade is projected to come in at around R2,35 million a person?
Seems a little strange.
Before you think that the Cuban healthcare professionals will be raking it in, remember that the country has been under communist rule since 1965.
Fidel Castro was a big fan, describing the medics involved in his country’s international missions as Cuba’s “army of white coats”, and a sign of solidarity with people around the world.
A BBC report from last year exposed how many of those “white coats” weren’t always sure what they were in for:
According to a report by Prisoners Defenders, a Spain-based NGO that campaigns for human rights in Cuba and is linked to the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) opposition group, doctors on average receive between 10% and 25% of the salary paid by the host countries, with the rest being kept by Cuba’s authorities.
In the case of Dayli Coro, who agreed to join a medical mission to Venezuela, she voluntarily signed a contract that she wasn’t given time to read, and was not given a personal copy to look over.
She then found herself in an area so riddled with crime, that it resembled a war zone, and feared for her life:
“There were many criminal gangs,” says Dayli. “When they fought, they brought their injured to us, because the local Venezuelan hospital had a police presence, and we didn’t. These kids would bring in a patient with 12 or 15 bullets in his body, point their guns at you and say you had to save him. If he died, you would die. That kind of thing happened on a daily basis. It was routine.”
…”Once an ambulance was shot up by another gang and a Venezuelan doctor and the driver were killed,” Dayli adds. “There was always the possibility that the rival gang might try to finish off the patient during the transfer. I had a situation where a rival gang came in and shot the patient dead.
A report compiled by Cuban Prisoners Defenders, based on testimony from 46 doctors, said that 41% had their passports removed by a Cuban official when they arrived at their destination, 91% were watched over by Cuban security officials during their mission (and encouraged to snitch on colleagues who voiced discontent), and 39% said they felt “strongly pressured” to serve abroad.
You can read the full BBC report here.
None of the Cuban healthcare professionals that have touched down in South Africa have raised any concerns, but it seems strange that we would look overseas for help, when so many in South Africa are without work.
Then again, our government has repeatedly stressed how strong our bond is with Cuba. This from our government website back in 2016, in the wake of Fidel Castro’s passing:
Castro left his mark on history as a renowned internationalist and anti-imperialist, who selflessly supported the struggles of the oppressed and the exploited.
He stood in solidarity with liberation movements in Africa, supporting our struggle for independence and the international campaign to isolate the apartheid regime.
Relations between South Africa and Cuba are significant. They were forged in the common struggle against apartheid and colonialism on the African continent.
The more cynical among us might view it is as a fundraising event by a foreign government at our expense, and with our government’s backing, as Cuba suffers through trade embargos and sanctions.
Whatever the case, with ministers like Tito Mboweni saying that locally-owned businesses must hire more South African workers, our government’s haste to look abroad should raise a few eyebrows.
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